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net.wars: Duty of care

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 01 October 2010


"Anyone who realizes how important the Web is," Tim Berners-Lee said on Tuesday, "has a duty of care." He was wrapping up a two-day discussion meeting at the Royal Society. The subject: Web science.

What is Web science? Even after two days, it's difficult to grasp, in part because defining it is a work in progress. Here are some of the disciplines that contributed: mathematics, philosophy, sociology, network science, and law, plus a bunch of much more directly Webby things that don't fit easily into categories. Which of course is the point: Web science has to cover much more than just the physical underpinnings of computers and network wires. Computer science or network science can use the principles of mathematics and physics to develop better and faster machines and study architectures and connections. But the Web doesn't exist without the people putting content and applications on it, and so Web science must be as much about human behaviour as about physics.
 
"If we are to anticipate how the Web will develop, we will require insight into our own nature," Nigel Shadbolt, one of the event's convenors, said on Monday. Co-convenor Wendy Hall has said, similarly, "What creates the Web is us who put things on it, and that's not natural or engineered.". Neither natural (biological systems) or engineered (planned build-out like the telecommunications networks), but something new. If we can understand it better, we can not only protect it better, but guide it better toward the most productive outcomes, just as farmers don't haphazardly interbreed species of corn but use their understanding to select for desirable traits.
 
The simplest parts of the discussions to understand, therefore, were (ironically) the mathematicians. Particularly intriguing was the former chief scientist Robert May, whose approach to removing nodes from the network to make it non-functional applied equally to the Web, epidemiology, and banking risk.
 
This is all happening despite the recent Wired cover claiming the "Web is dead". Dead? Facebook is a Web site; Skype, the app store, IM clients, Twitter, and the New York Times all reach users first via the Web even if they use their iPhones for subsequent visits (and how exactly did they buy those iPhones, hey?) Saying it's dead is almost exactly the old joke about how no one goes to a particular restaurant any more because it's too crowded.
 
People who think the Web is dead have stopped seeing it. But the point of Web science is that for 20 years we've been turning what started as an academic playground into a critical infrastructure, and for government, finance, education, and social interaction to all depend on the Web it must have solid underpinnings. And it has to keep scaling – in a presentation on the state of deployment of IPv6 in China, Jianping Wu noted that Internet penetration in China is expected to jump from 30 percent to 70 percent in the next ten to 20 years. That means adding 400-900 million users. The Chinese will have to design, manage, and operate the largest infrastructure in the world – and finance it.
 
But that's the straightforward kind of scaling. IBMer Philip Tetlow, author of The Web's Awake (a kind of Web version of the Gaia hypothesis), pointed out that all the links in the world are a finite set; all the eyeballs in the world looking at them are a finite set…but all the contexts surrounding them…well, it's probably finite but it's not calculable (despite Pierre Levy's rather fanciful construct that seemed to suggest it might be possible to assign a URI to every human thought). At that level, Tetlow believes some of the neat mathematical tools, like Jennifer Chayes' graph theory, will break down.
 
"We're the equivalent of precision engineers," he said, when what's needed are the equivalent of town planners and urban developers. "And we can't build these things out of watches."
 
We may not be able to build them at all, at least not immediately. Helen Margetts outlined the constraints on the development of egovernment in times of austerity. "Web science needs to map, understand, and develop government just as for other social phenomena, and export back to mainstream," she said.
 
Other speakers highlighted gaps between popular mythology and reality. MIT's David Carter noted that, "The Web is often associated with the national and international but not the local – but the Web is really good at fostering local initiatives – that's something for Web science to ponder." Noshir Contractor, similarly, called out The Economist over the "death of distance": "More and more research shows we use the Web to have connections with proximate people."
 
Other topics will be far more familiar to net.wars readers: 
 
Jonathan Zittrain explored the ways the Web can be broken by copyright law, increasing corporate control (there was a lovely moment when he morphed the iPhone's screen into the old CompuServe main menu), the loss of uniformity so that the content a URL points to changes by geographic location. These and others are emerging points of failure.
 
We'll leave it to an unidentified audience question to sum up the state of Web science: "Nobody knows what it is. But we are doing it."
 

Wendy M Grossman

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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).